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Veterans heal through laughter

Michael Pritchard, an Army veteran, comedian and mentor, works with the Walking Point Foundation to bring laughter and comedy to veterans in Yountville. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

ALEX HORVATH , SPECIAL TO TOWNS

Thursday is fast becoming comedy day in one corner of the Napa Valley.

One recent afternoon, a former homeless combat veteran named Mark showed up at the weekly comedy workshop ready to engage. He was armed with one-liners on a variety of subjects that he lobbed at the rest of the group, eight men and women living at the California Veterans Home in Yountville who have served in wars ranging from Korea to Vietnam and Iraq.

It worked. Dishing out zingers under the cover of a red Operation Iraqi Freedom cap, Mark had many in the group in stitches, amazing organizers who didn’t expect him to do so well.

After all, Mark suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has traumatic brain injury, which affects his memory and organizational skills, and now resides at the California Veterans Home in Yountville. How could his timing be so good?

When Mark stood up, they saw that he had taped to his upper pant legs a list of jokes on yellow stationery, makeshift cue cards there to remind him of what he needed to accomplish that day. The sight of the list broke the room into even more raucous laughter.

“With TBI you have to start training your brain to read again,” which in itself is a painful experience, said Michael Pritchard, a comedian, motivational speaker and comedy workshop mentor.

“He wanted to be funny. He knows that the emotion you get from giving laughs is a balm for the spirit.”

The weekly comedy workshops, a new program offered at the veterans’ home, are sponsored by Walking Point Foundation, named for the first man in a combat infantry patrol who often is the first to encounter the enemy and break new ground. Founded as a nonprofit in 2011, it provides veterans with comedy, writing, music and other arts programs.

The organization was started by Napa resident Tom Bird, a Vietnam Vet who found his way out of the dark ravages of war a few years ago by working with the arts. He began by serving vets in Pathway Home, an inpatient treatment program for up to 34 veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. On a trial basis working through the Veterans Administration, volunteers now serve veterans who are housed at the Veterans Home, nearly a thousand with military service spanning generations.

Plans are underway to expand the program to other vet centers in Sonoma County, the East Bay and, eventually, into Southern California.

Gathered around in an informal setting with vets — some in wheelchairs — pulled up to rectangular tables, Bird and Pritchard first engage the new comedy and writing recruits with ice breaker games that evoke humorous, sometimes bawdy response. At one recent workshop, for example, they used the salty “Cards Against Humanity” game to get participants laughing.

They later encourage the veterans to write comedy bits, routines and stories that ultimately help them peel off layers of “numbness” that Bird says are a side effect of war.

The most popular aspect of the program is the chance to do improvisational humor, recently requested by an 82-year-old female veteran of the Korean conflict.

“Coming out of the Vietnam War and the residual effects of having taken someone’s life, it doesn’t leave you. It stays with you,” Bird said. “I often wondered if the younger generation of soldiers in Iraq would have the same sensibilities.

“They do. With our program, the guys can come and let go and laugh. They laugh at themselves, they laugh at the other guys. Being able to laugh serves to ground them in the present.”

Dustin Kearfott joined the Army in April 1998, fought in the Iraq War and served an extra 530 days he hadn’t signed up for when insurgents ran rampant in Iraq. By the time he was discharged in 2006, Kearfott had traumatic brain injury, PTSD and frequent migraines caused by the brain injury.

He attended the comedy and writing workshop when it was at Pathway Home and said it provided relief from constantly thoughts about his experiences in the Iraq War. Doctors loaded him up with pills and other medications, he said, an ineffective treatment regime he replaced with massage, acupuncture and writing.

“Everyone goes through difficult times,” Kearfot said. “It’s how you deal with it that determines your outcome. I got out in 2006, and I was dealing with things in not such positive ways — alcohol and drugs.”

There’s nothing funny about his war-based essays, which deal with the smell of burning bodies, depression and his June 2013 suicide attempt.

“There are many ways that creative arts impacts veterans, particularly with issues of depression and PTSD,” said Susan Heims, the Veterans Home’s supervising rehabilitation therapist. “It helps to identify emotions and give voice to someone’s feelings.

“Creative writing in general is a very popular and powerful thing here. We have quite a few residents who are published authors.”

More specifically, Kearfott said, “We veterans have a little darker sense of humor than the average American. The program allows us to have fun and not feel self-conscious about language and stories. We get to detach from the numbness and to obtain a greater feeling of togetherness.”

Heims said she expects the comedy program to be a success.

“When the comedy workshop started it was supposed to be every other week. It is now scheduled for every week. One of the residents has even done stand-up comedy.”

More information about Walking Point Foundation is available at walkingpoint.org.

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